An exhibition which captures a snapshot of Britain’s life and landscape during World War II goes on display at the University of St Andrews this week.
The fine art exhibition explores the Recording Britain Scheme, an ambitious artistic documentary project established at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Under the scheme, artists were sometimes dispatched to areas under immediate threat due to development or war-time activity. Themes addressed in the exhibition include urban and rural change, from the growth of motor transport, industrialisation to the decline of rural crafts such as thatching and blacksmithing.
Recording Britain: Life and Landscape during World War II provides a unique opportunity to see works from both the Recording Britain and Recording Scotland Collections, which have never been publicly displayed together before.
The exhibition – which runs at MUSA, the Museum of the University of St Andrews until December – features a selection of paintings and drawings from the Recording Britain Collection held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Works from its sister collection, Recording Scotland, cared for by the University of St Andrews, will also be on display.
Initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, and funded by the Pilgrim Trust, the Recording Britain Scheme aimed to provide employment for impoverished artists during the war. It was also founded amid fears about the immediate threat posed to the country’s landscapes and buildings by the potentially devastating impact of aerial bombardment and invasion.
Over time, the scheme was expanded to reflect wider concerns about the impact of the destructive forces of ‘progress’ – urban expansion, housing developments, motor transport and so on – on the landscape, buildings and traditional crafts and ways of life.
The result of this project was a significant collection of 1549 watercolours and drawings produced by 97 artists. These vivid images provide a fascinating visual insight into British lives and landscapes at a time of imminent change. The exhibition showcases works from the Recording Britain Collection by artists including Barbara Jones, John Piper, Louisa Puller, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree and Ruskin Spear.
Launched in 1942 in parallel to the Recording Britain scheme, Recording Scotland was guided by the similar aim to ‘secure a record of historic scenes, site and buildings (in Scotland) which may be endangered through enemy action or by utilitarian encroachment.’
Chaired by Principal Irvine, the Recording Scotland Committee assembled a diverse collection of watercolours, oils, prints and drawings by artists such as Samuel Peploe, David Foggie, Robert Currie Robertson, May Marshall Brown and Albert Gordon Thomas. The scenes depicted range from castles, churches and the Clyde docks to village streets, fishing ports and cityscapes of Edinburgh and Glasgow. By the end of the project, the collection contained 145 artworks by 47 artists.
The exhibition also shows examples of the visual and printed propaganda that was distributed around the country to boost public morale during this period of national crisis. This includes reproductions of Second World War propaganda posters, such as the evocatively-titled ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Your Britain Fight for it Now’ posters, and video footage of public information broadcasts.
Helen Rawson, Co-Director of the Museum Collections Unit at the University of St Andrews said, “The Recording Britain exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to see vibrant artworks depicting life and landscape in Britain at the time of the Second World War. These focus not on bombs and destruction or on military operations, for reasons of morale and security, but on local life in country market towns, fishing ports, hillside farms and urban centres, reminding Britons of their cherished landscapes, buildings, communities and traditions, and what they were fighting for.
“They are a somewhat nostalgic snapshot of British life at a time when war was threatening old certainties and securities. Opening on the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the exhibition highlights both changes and constants in life in Britain since the Second World War, from increased road traffic and loss of traditional industries to the remaining importance and appreciation of historic sites, local community life and the glorious countryside.”
In September, an accompanying exhibition focusing on the Recording Scotland Exhibition will take place at the University’s Gateway Galleries. This exhibition, which will run until December, will include works by Stewart Carmichael, Charles Oppenheimer, Alan Ian Ronald, John Guthrie Spence Smith, Margaret Wright and Aleksander Zyw.
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Notes to news editors
The exhibition, which runs until 6 December, opened to coincide with the weekend of national celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Admission is free.
Photographs are available. Contact Communications Office.
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